[Editor's note: Kai Nagata is making the rounds at the Manning Networking Conference this weekend. Here's the first of his dispatches.]
"I caution Conservatives, don't ever call yourself the natural governing party of Canada," says Preston Manning. We're speaking over the din of a thousand excited delegates, packed into a ballroom in Ottawa for the opening-night mixer. "This is a conference of self-examination," says Manning. "Every party has strengths, every party has weaknesses."
Lately, one could argue, it's the strengths that have been more in evidence. Certainly the crowd feels buoyant.
Just across the Rideau Canal lies the crown jewel, its facets spotlit, the Centennial Flame dancing out front. It may have taken Stephen Harper 10 years to win his majority, but now that the Conservatives control parliament, they will hold it for most of the next century -- at least according to the authors of a new book on the subject, The Big Shift.
With the old Laurentian power base smashed by "a new alignment between Ontario and the West," Manning allows that 145 of the government's 166 seats now lie west of the nearby Ottawa River. "That is a seismic shift, and it's going to have an impact on the country for a long time to come."
Some of the people here are hangers-on, social climbers, fair-weather fans. But many helped engineer that historic 2011 victory. They're here this weekend to get even better at what they do.
Their databases already track us, the electorate, at a breathtaking level of detail. With targeting set by that data, their messaging is deliberate and disciplined. Much of that messaging flies under the media radar, straight to the Conservative base. And on election day, that base is delivered to the polls with more efficiency than any rival party. As the midpoint of the current mandate approaches, the conservative movement appears to have all the tools to further consolidate its power.
And yet. And yet.
Notably absent from the conference roster is Dr. Tom Flanagan, the intellectual "godfather" behind Harper's rise to power. Flanagan was dropped from the program last week after publicly airing his "grave doubts" about jailing consumers of child porn -- then chuckling, unprompted, about his years on the mailing list of NAMBLA. Thirty seconds of cellphone video, and Flanagan's career was over. If the supposed master strategist is capable of such a spectacular misstep, then so is anyone.
Preston Manning speaks with the Tyee. Video: Alex Tétreault.
An ominous poll from Nanos this week put Conservative support nationally at 31.5 per cent, lower than it has been since August 2009. The Liberals are in second place, even before the official coronation of Justin Trudeau, while the NDP is hoping to build off a likely provincial victory in the upcoming B.C. election.
Meanwhile, Manning Conference sponsors Enbridge and TransCanada face grassroots opposition and regulatory uncertainty in building pipelines west, south and east from the oil sands. Landlocked Canadian bitumen, and where to send it, is the subject of a panel debate this weekend between Dr. Wenran Jiang of the Asia-Pacific Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce delegate Matt Koch, and Blaine Higgs, Finance Minister of New Brunswick and a longtime employee of Irving Oil -- owners of the massive Saint John refinery.
Here to discuss the role of women in conservative politics are MPs Michelle Rempel, Candice Bergen (formerly Hoeppner, best-known for the bill she introduced to eliminate the long-gun registry), and Joan Crockatt (former managing editor at the Calgary Herald and winner of the November byelection in Calgary Centre). This is an important conversation for a party that still faces a gender gap at the polls.
"Is the federal Conservative Party at a high water mark? How can we continue to attract new supporters?" So asks another panel featuring ethnic outreach guru Jason Kenney, along with cabinet colleague Maxime Bernier -- one of only five Conservative MPs to survive the "Orange Wave" in Quebec.
Clockwise, from top left: Calgarian Reformer Jason Kenney, Laurentian Red Tory Jim Flaherty, Sun Media personality Brian Lilley, 'Quebec Tea Party' co-founder Joanne Marcotte. Photos: Alex Tétreault.
Each topic provides a clue as to the movement's current preoccupations. The urban-rural divide, the legacy of Attawapiskat, Canada's reputation abroad -- expect more frank discussion of the Conservative government's missteps and weaknesses than you will ever hear in Question Period.
Throw in "Free Thinking Film screenings" (on the program: Atlas Shrugged!) and free-flowing hospitality in the sponsor suites. Toss in a keynote address by libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul (spotted enjoying the show in the House of Commons yesterday), and a panel with "Harper's Aussie Advisor," former prime minister John Howard. Sprinkle in pollsters, pundits, pro-lifers, and petroleum execs. It's a big tent, as they say.
What new vocabulary and tactics are coming to Canada? Which advocacy groups or opposition politicos do conservatives most fear? Where does the party still feel it can break through? Will Ezra dance?
Your faithful correspondent will endeavour to answer all these questions and more. Look for a full report in Monday's edition of The Tyee.